“His big hand could grasp the animal in a way that has never been excelled, and his shears, propelled with a mighty wrist, made no mistakes”
On October 10, 1892 in Pre-Federation Australia that was on the cusp of an Industrial Revolution, John Robert ‘Jackie’ Howe sheared 321 sheep in 7 hours and 40 minutes, using only blade shears at Alice Downs near Blackall, a record that still stands today.
So how physically challenging is it to shear sheep? An article published in the Sunday Mail back in 2000 looked at a study conducted by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission which found that shearing sheep is one of the most physically demanding jobs as far as stress to the human body. The study, which measured the heart rate, oxygen consumption and fluid loss found that one shearer working in 47 degree heat lost 9 litres of sweat in 2 hours.
Jack Howe has been variously described as an “extraordinary physical specimen” and “one of the best physically built men in Australia” with “a hand the size of a small tennis racket”. He is recorded to have been 5ft 10 inches tall, his chest measuring 50 inches (127 cm) and his biceps 17.5 inches (44.45 cms). His weight has been given variously in different sources as 14 stone, 15 stone and 18 stone (between 89-114 kg).
Apart from being a champion shearer, Jack was also naturally gifted as an athlete. He once ran 100 yards in 11 seconds (reputedly wearing socks) against a professional runner in bare feet. This was after Jackie had finished a day’s work where he shore 217 sheep. The race ended in a dead heat. He was also a good dancer; once at a sports event in Warwick he won the Irish Jig and the Sailor Hornpipe dancing competitions .
In 1900 he retired from shearing and bought the Universal Hotel at Blackall , where there is now a statue of him holding a sheep. In 1902 he bought the Barcoo Hotel, also in Blackall.
Jackie Howe was a prominent member of the Queensland Shearers’ Union and served on its committee. He was a staunch member of the Australian Labor Party.
Today, the legend of Jackie Howe is immortalised by a blue singlet. According to legend, Jackie was wearing a sleeveless dark blue singlet on the day he set the shearing record. The sleeveless under garment became synonymous with his name.